Blog Post

Global poverty increased in face of COVID-19: 2021 Global Food Policy Report Released

The COVID-19 pandemic and the associated policy responses have had wide-ranging impacts across the globe in terms of health, food security, incomes and livelihoods, and access to critical services. According to the 2021 Global Food Policy Report (GFPR), released this week by IFPRI, COVID-19’s effects have moved the world further away from achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. However, the report also highlights important lessons learned from the pandemic that can be used to address weaknesses and inequalities in global, regional, and local food systems and better prepare us for future shocks.


The GFPR paints a picture of the ideal food system as efficient, inclusive, sustainable, resilient, and supportive of human health and nutrition. Even before the pandemic struck, however, food systems around the world struggled to live up to this ideal. And while the impacts have varied across regions, COVID-19 has set progress on food system transformation back even further in a number of ways.


Lockdowns and movement restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have led to decreased incomes globally. The GFPR reports that global poverty is estimated to increase by about 150 million people, or 20 percent above pre-pandemic levels. In Africa south of the Sahara, the recent trend of economic growth has been interrupted, with millions more people falling into extreme poverty over the course of 2020. Several African countries are now facing significant fiscal crisis as a result of the pandemic and the resulting economic impacts. In Latin America and the Caribbean, both urbanization and high obesity rates have resulted in rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus; in addition to these health impacts, a heavy reliance on informal employment in the region has translated into a significant loss of incomes and livelihoods as movement restrictions disrupted labor opportunities. The extent of impacts in Asia has varied, but the region has seen reduced incomes due to labor disruptions and a loss of remittances.   


While global food supply chains functioned more smoothly than was feared at the start of the pandemic, they still faced disruptions as a result of COVID-19 policy responses. Food systems that were transforming from traditional to more modern supply chains were particularly vulnerable to disruptions in labor availability, transportation, and market functioning. Supply chains for perishable products like fruits and vegetables faced significant challenges from increased transport times and the closure of open air markets, which led to both increased food waste and lost incomes.


As a result of falling incomes, loss of employment opportunities, and disruptions in food supply chains, food insecurity and poor nutrition outcomes are on the rise. Dietary quality has been especially hard hit as a result of both reduced incomes and reduced availability of nutritious perishable foods. The GFPR reports that households in many countries have increased their consumption of cheaper starchy staple foods and ultra-processed foods and reduced consumption of fruits, vegetables, and animal products.


Globally, poor households have experienced greater declines in food security, incomes, and wellbeing than more well-off households. Urban populations have experienced greater income losses due to the pandemic overall, but as more rural populations tend to live closer to the poverty lines, more people in rural areas have fallen into poverty.


While COVID-19 has clearly caused significant losses in human lives, food security, and economic wellbeing, the GFPR also points out some important lessons the pandemic has taught. If heeded, these lessons can help policymakers and private sector actors build stronger food systems that will be more resilient to the next shock.


There is an urgent need to invest in policies and innovations to enhance the resilience of food systems. This includes investing in climate change mitigation and preservation of natural resources, investing in early warning and monitoring systems,  investing in agricultural R&D and rural infrastructure, and ensuring more inclusive access to financing and extension services.


There is also a need to ramp up social safety net programs to protect the world’s most vulnerable populations. Countries with strong existing programs proved most successful in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the need for policymakers to build strong social safety nets before a crisis occurs. Such programs also need to include a gender equity component to ensure that women do not fall through the cracks and a nutrition component to help protect and expand access to nutritious diets for all.


To enhance food systems’ ability to react quickly in the face of a shock like the COVID-19 pandemic, greater attention needs to be paid to incorporating small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) into existing supply chains. This includes expanding access to credit , insurance, and markets. Policymakers should also focus on building an enabling environment that encourages innovation and cooperation from the private sector to drive food system modernization.


Finally, policymakers need to better account for the interrelated impacts of health, economic, and social policies. A more multi-sectoral policy approach will enable countries to respond to crises like COVID-19 in a cohesive, coordinated way that will better protect populations’ health and economic wellbeing.